Brighton Declaration will lead to ‘substantial’ reforms to the European Court of Human Rights

Members of the Council of Europe unanimously voted in favour of reforming the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on Thursday, at a conference in Brighton, UK.

The conference, instigated by the UK chairmanship of the council, involved delegates from the 47 member states who gathered in the south coast city to discuss the reforms laid out in a draft document, known as the Brighton Declaration.

The Council of Europe, an international organisation that promotes democracy, human rights and the rule of law, is based in Strasbourg and was formed in 1949. The UK is a founding member and holds the rotating chairmanship of the council until 23 May 2012, when it will then pass to Albania.

Reform of the court was a key priority for the UK chairmanship, who believe that that court is being asked for do too much and that it takes far too long for cases to be heard. Throughout the chairmanship, Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed an agenda of increased use of ‘subsidiarity’ – national courts dealing with cases where possible, rather than the ECtHR.

The conference came in the midst of the international legal row over the UK government’s failure to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada. The UK government wants to deport Qatada to Jordan to face terror charges, but judges at the ECtHR halted those plans amid concerns that Jordan may use evidence in Qatada’s trial that was obtained via torture.

Following institutional changes to the court in 1998, plus expansion to admit new members, the court experienced a substantial increase in its workload. At present, the ECtHR is has a backlog of around 150,000 cases waiting to be heard, and estimates that around 90 per cent of applications made to it are in fact inadmissible under its rules. The court also believes that in about 10 per cent of the cases that are admissible, up to half are repetitive cases about issues that have already been decided by the court.

At the opening of the Brighton Conference, UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: “This reform is designed not to weaken human rights, or undermine the profoundly important shared valued in the Convention – but to strengthen them, and advance justice, democracy and freedom.”

Under the reforms agreed in Brighton, fewer British cases will go to the ECtHR and more will be resolved in domestic courts.  The measures agreed include:

  • Amending the Convention to tighten the admissibility criteria, and therefore making it easier for trivial cases to be thrown out
  • Amending the Convention to include the principles of subsidiarity and margin of appreciation
  • Improving the selection process for judges
  • Reducing the time limit for claims from six months to four

Critics of the declaration have said they believe the reforms won’t really make any difference to the way the court operates. President of the ECtHR, Sir Nicolas Bratza, told council delegates that the court’s judges were uncomfortable with the idea that governments could in some way dictate to the court how its case law should evolve, or how it should carry out the judicial functions conferred on it.

Although these reforms have now been officially agreed, Ken Clarke admitted that it will still take years to clear the backlog of cases the court is waiting to hear.

In the meantime, council members have reaffirmed their commitment to guaranteeing human rights in Europe and anticipate a future court that will be able to act quicker and more effectively.

This article was published by The New Federalist on 20 April 2012. 

From Eurovision to human rights reform: Brighton welcomes the Council of Europe

Brighton Pavilion, Brighton, UK

Brighton Pavilion, Brighton, UK

As the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe begins to draw to a close, delegates from the Council’s 47 member states are gathering in Brighton to discuss reforms to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will open the conference tomorrow, and delegations have just a day to put forward their views and hammer out a deal, which will be known as the Brighton Declaration. Final discussions and the adoption of the new declaration are scheduled for Friday morning.

Fittingly, the conference is being held at the Brighton Centre – the very same 1970s concrete building that has hosted countless political party conferences and a Eurovision song contest.

Throughout its chairmanship, Britain has advocated the principle of “greater subsidiarity” and wants council members to have more freedom to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights according to their own national legal traditions.

In January, David Cameron spoke at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and said: “The Court has got to be able to fully protect itself against spurious cases when they have been dealt with at the national level.”

The conference also comes as Britain clashes with the European court over the case of radical cleric Abu Qatada, whose deportation from the UK was halted by the court tonight after a last-minute appeal.

It’s clear that Cameron’s Conservatives believe judges in Strasbourg have too much power and would prefer a British court to deal with cases wherever it can, but just how much of this view is shared by other members of the Council of Europe will become apparent over the next few days.

ACTA ratification suspended as EU refers treaty to the ECJ

European flag outside the Commission

European Commission, Brussels

The EU has suspended ratification of ACTA and referred the treaty to the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The European Commission is to ask the ECJ if the treaty is compatible with the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms – something that protesters and politicians have voiced concerns and misgivings over for months. It is hoped that an ECJ ruling will clear any fog or misinterpretation in the wording of the treaty.

In a press release on Tuesday, Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said that he shared people’s concerns over freedom of the internet and that he understood the present uncertainty on what ACTA will ultimately mean for the key issues (including internet freedom and the protection of Europe’s Intellectual Property).

The Commissioner also stressed that ACTA will not “change anything in the European Union, but will matter for the European Union.”

Whether or not that is true is now up to the ECJ to decide, but this latest development has certainly awarded a point to the anti-ACTA campaign.

Socialist Schulz is elected President of the European Parliament

German Socialist MEP Martin Schulz was elected President of the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week. His election comes at a particularly poignant time for socialism in Europe – both the heads of the European Commission and European Council belong to conservative political parties who are affiliated with the European People’s Party and there are just four left wing governments amongst the EU’s member states.

Schulz, who was nominated by MEPs from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) back in September 2011, has been the group’s president since 2004. He succeeds Jerzy Buzek, who became the first Polish President of the European Parliament in 2009. The new president, who has a comfortable majority of 387 out of the 670 votes cast, is now responsible for presiding over parliamentary debates, chairing plenary sessions and representing the parliament internationally. He will hold the post until the next European elections in July 2014.

British MEPs Nirj Deva (Conservative) and Diana Wallis (Liberal Democrat) also stood against Schulz, gaining 142 and 141 votes respectively. Since her defeat on Tuesday, Diana Wallis has announced that she is to resign after representing Yorkshire and the Humber for the past twelve years. When an MEP steps down, their seat is handed to the candidate who came second on the party list behind them. Diana Wallis’s constituents can now look forward to being represented by her husband, Stewart Arnold.